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Cook County officials allow lockers back inside Leighton courts building

Monday, April 11, 2016
Chicago Tribune
by William Lee

Cook County authorities have reversed an earlier decision to remove lockers used by visitors to the Leighton Criminal Court Building to store their cellphones.

The lockers' removal proved a bit chaotic as defendants and others were forced upon arriving at the courthouse to figure out what to do with their phones.

After a compromise reached by Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, Chief JudgeTimothy Evansand SheriffTom Dart, visitors as of Monday will once again be able to tuck their cellphones into county-provided lockers before they go to court hearings.

The lockers, which had been in a vestibule just inside the courthouse doors, will now be placed behind the security checkpoint. After going through metal detectors, visitors will be able to store phones in the lockers and can retrieve them as they leave.

Evans' office released a statement last month announcing that the lockers would be removed from the city's busiest courthouse, his staff said.

The lockers were installed after the chief judge instituted a court ban on cellphones in 2013. Nineteen criminal court judges complained that visitors were using their smartphones to take photos and videos of courtroom proceedings.

Evans' office said those photos and recordings posed a threat because they could be used to intimidate anyone from jurors and witnesses to police officers, defendants and judges.

While judges, jurors, police officers, courthouse employees, attorneys and journalists were exempt from the cellphone ban, others, including defendants, crime victims and courtroom spectators, were told to lock up their phones or leave them elsewhere.

But in February, the county's Department of Facilities Management, which is under Preckwinkle's authority, notified Evans' office that the lockers would be removed, according to Preckwinkle's office. The decision to take them out came after facilities management consulted with the county's Homeland Security & Emergency Management Department, also under Preckwinkle's umbrella.

Staffers in facilities management, which took control of the lockers after the original vendor stopped working for the county, became concerned after they saw visitors stuffing drugs and weapons into the lockers, according to Frank Shuftan, a Preckwinkle spokesman.

Removing the lockers immediately caused an uproar, and people who arrived at the courthouse via public transportation were especially left in a lurch.

Earlier this week, the Tribune reported that some people resorted to hiding their phones in concrete planters. Others paid $2 to the operator of a food truck parked in front of the courthouse to keep their phones. Some even left their phones with strangers.

On Friday, officials announced that the lockers would be back.

"I am very pleased to report that the president, sheriff and my office were able to work collaboratively to reach this agreement," Evans said in a joint news release late Friday afternoon. "Our plan going forward promotes both public safety and public convenience in the courthouse."

"The return of the lockers is simply the right thing to do, and this is a great day for the thousands of courthouse patrons who require the use of their phones to go about their everyday lives," Dart said in the release.

wlee@tribpub.com



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